8/10/21: This article has been updated.
After years of whispered and not-so-whispered rumors of gravestones, but not bodies, moved from the site of the current Tropicana Field, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) revealed at least three possible gravesites under the stadium’s parking lots.
The Trop not only sits on three former burial grounds, but is the current site of a multi-million dollar redevelopment project. As part of that project, Riverview-based engineering firm Cardno discovered suspected gravesites and potential bodies under Tropicana Field parking lots during a recent GPR survey.
“There were too many open questions about this possibility and with the development proposals and development planning of the site, the city decided to consult Cardno,” said the St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s Communications Director Ben Kirby.
Cardno found the three potential graves, along with other detected “areas of interest,” under Parking Lot 1 and Parking Lot 2.
The cement real estate sits at the southern boundary of 5th Ave. S. and I-275.
“While the number of potential graves discovered is small, it is not insignificant. Every person has value and no one should be forgotten,” Kriseman said in Friday, August 6 press release. “This process is of the utmost importance and we will continue to do right by these souls and all who loved them as we move forward. ”
According to the city’s statement, Cardno will provide a proposal and cost for the next steps, which will include a plan to further investigate the area.
Originally platted in July in 1907, Oaklawn Cemetery was founded as a 10-acre burial ground predominantly serving whites.
Oaklawn is historically connected to adjacent burial grounds: Evergreen Cemetery, established as a Black cemetery, and Moffett Cemetery, which served all races.
In 1926, the City of St. Petersburg condemned all three cemeteries. Workers moved the graves, with the Black people buried there reportedly re-interred at Gulfport’s Lincoln Cemetery.
I-175 covers both Evergreen and Moffett, prompting the city to investigate Oaklawn as a priority site. The parking lots west of 16th St. S. replaced Oaklawn.
Cardo focused its preliminary GPR on the former site of Oaklawn, as they could most easily access the area. The other areas were under the interstate, roadway or sidewalk.
“Nearby roads, perimeter sidewalks, and the drainage area on the east side of what was once Oaklawn Cemetery were excluded from this phase of geophysical work,” Cardno’s report reads. “Survey areas within the property were further constrained by the presence of a COVID testing site on the western-most portion of what was once the Oaklawn Cemetery property.”
Cardno has yet to use GPR on the ground under the stadium itself.
“As the mayor stated, it’s important to honor the lives that are buried and identify the families to effectively honor them,” Kirby reiterated. “The other ‘areas of concern’ may be graves, they may not.”
Paving the Past
For years, historians and locals have discussed the possibility of graves left at the Tropicana site, particularly those in the historically Black cemetery. While this initial report does not identify the race of those in the existing graves, the discovery has generated new speculation.
“Unfortunately the mishandling of African American cemeteries has been a failure on a national scale. While this is not unique to us, it’s unfortunate and unacceptable that we continue to find important parts of our past that have been paved over,” said Ken Welch, a former Pinellas County Commissioner who represented South Pinellas and advocated for the restoration and preservation of the Lincoln Cemetery. “We should continue the gravesite analysis, and take every necessary step to make sure that the gravesites and any remains are handled with the proper respect and care,” he said.
The Gabber asked Kriseman’s administration how this discovery changed the plans for redeveloping the Trop.
“First, this process is of the utmost importance, and, as Mayor Kriseman said, we will continue to do right by these souls and all who loved them moving forward,” Kirby said. “Cardno will be providing the City of St. Petersburg a proposal soon which will include next steps to further investigate these findings. The City will be working closely with the community, descendants, stakeholders, and others to ensure we properly care for those buried at Tropicana Field.”